South Africa Needs $1 Billion to Make Toxic Water Potable

South Africa needs to spend as much as $1 billion to make toxic water leaking from abandoned mine shafts drinkable, the Department of Water Affairs said.

While the government and mines would foot part of the bill, the cost would mostly fall on consumers, said Marius Keet, acting chief director of the department’s office in Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, the country’s biggest city. South Africa is the 30th-driest nation on Earth with domestic and industrial demand outstripping supplies as early as 2025 if trends continue, government projections show.

South Africa is battling acid mine drainage, which occurs when water that floods cavernous areas previously mined for gold becomes infiltrated with toxic chemicals, including uranium, and leaks into rivers. About 6,000 abandoned mines litter the country, many of them gold mines. Few environmental regulations were in place until the mid-1990s.

The estimated spending of 9 billion rand ($863 million) to 10 billion rand will be enough to “neutralize the water and also desalinate” it, Keet said in an April 7 interview. “That will make available 150 million liters (40 million gallons) per day, which is potable-quality standard, and it will also reduce the water we’re currently using from Lesotho.”

Lesotho Imports

There may not necessarily be large tariff increases for consumers to pay for the treatment plants because more water would be made available through the treatment, offsetting the cost of imports from Lesotho, Keet said.

Rand Water Services (Pty) Ltd., which supplies 4 billion liters a day to Johannesburg and surrounding towns, pays for water from the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho, an enclave in South Africa that lies south of Johannesburg. It has to import five liters for every liter of acid mine water discharged into rivers to dilute away the toxic chemicals, Keet said. Treating the mine water would reduce the cost of these imports, he said.

A treatment plant for acid mine water in Germiston, east of Johannesburg, is currently in the commissioning phase, Keet said. It will cost about 1 billion rand in total, with a third of that cost borne by mining companies, he said.

DRDGold Ltd., Central Rand Gold Ltd. and Gold One International Ltd. are mining companies that have committed to helping the government pay for treated polluted water, Keet said.

South Africa needs to spend 670 billion rand on water infrastructure over the next decade, the government said in August. The country, which relies on mining for more than 50 percent of its foreign-exchange earnings, will spend 15.5 billion rand on a series of tunnels and dams that will allow more water to flow from Lesotho.

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